FLOTSAM & JETSAM: How to outflank the Tea Party (and Barack Obama)

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

How to outflank the Tea Party (and Barack Obama)

Sam Smith

Pablo Davis in Memphis sent me a quote from the Argentinian essayist Arturo Jauretche that got me thinking about the key question of the day in a different sort of way.

That question, if you haven’t noticed, is this: what the hell do we do now?

The quote from Jauretche was: “The technique of our enemies is to demoralize and depress the people. Demoralized people don’t triumph and that’s was we come here today to battle joyfully. Nothing great can be accomplished from sadness. “

One of the reasons the right is doing so much better than the left these days is that the right has passion, while the left mostly has logic.

The problem with logic is that it easily ignores the passionate and the joyful. In its name, we trivialize the trivial, discounting the importance of the little things that keep people going in bad times.

The journalist Russell Baker understood this, writing once that, “Being solemn is easy. Being serious is hard ... Children almost always begin by being serious, which is what makes them so entertaining when compared to adults as a class ... Adults, on the whole, are solemn ... Being solemn has almost nothing to do with being serious.”

I understood this from an early age because my introduction to politics was not ideological or logical but as an eleven year old stuffing envelopes in a campaign that ended 69 years of Republican rule in Philadelphia. I had never seen anything quite as much fun and exciting as a political campaign office.

Many years later, I would write, “We have lost much of what was gained in the 1960s and 1970s because we traded in our passion, our energy, our magic and our music for the rational, technocratic and media ways of our leaders. We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered they were not alone. The freedom schools of SNCC. The politics of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions. People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple suppers. Above all, we must understand that in leaving the toxic ways of the present we are healing ourselves, our places, and our planet. We rebel not as a last act of desperation but as a first act of creation."

On another occasion I put it this way:

“Politics is the sound of the air coming out of the balloon of our expectations and it is the music of hope. It is laundry lists and dirty laundry, new hospitals and old hates, finding out what others think about something, and the willing suspension of our closest beliefs in order to get through the next month or year. Not least, as Paul Begala says, politics ‘is show business for ugly people,’ a theatre in which each voter and candidate writes a different morality play.

“It is hard to descend from the mountain top of exquisitely constructed ideology into the thorny, rock-strewn valley of politics. But in the end, the only test of faith is when it is put to work. It is a test that is graded on a curve -- not by its proximity to perfection but by its improvement over all previous, surrounding and potential imperfections.”

Politics can also be a community and a culture. It can be a refuge for the beaten, a home for the still hopeful, and an oasis for the patient. At present, progressives have no such home.

Instead, we are faced with a politics reduced to two Mafia mobs, between which we will be asked to choose in 2012.

The Republican mob is engaged in an uncivil war, the worst assault on the accepted premises of our union since the post-reconstruction era attempt to revive the south. Further, the GOP is proposing that our country be ruled by one of an assortment of knaves, fools and hucksters.

On the other hand, Barack Obama is the worst Democratic president we have had in nearly a century, the Bernie Madoff of liberalism, untrustworthy, misleading and less than competent. Never in American history have so many voters cast their ballot for someone who turned out to be so different than they had imagined. Sure, he’s the best of the current lot, but he won’t get any better without some real pressure. The way things are going we’ll be seeing bumper stickers that read: “Vote for Obama. . .And save a little bit of your Social Security.”

What’s the solution?

Just as the Tea Party did, you have to change the rules of the game.

Here’s just one way that those who are fed up with the Democrats and Obama can make their feelings felt without electing a Republican president and Congress: join the Green Party.

The only party privilege you lose from doing so is that you can’t vote in Democratic primaries anymore. But since most of them are rigged, it’s no big deal.

You can still make exactly the same individual or group decisions you made as a Democrat as to whom to vote for, donate to or endorse. You’d just do as a Green.

And if enough people did it, it could be as powerful a force as the Tea Party.

Admittedly some in the Green Party might not be happy with a large number of unvetted outliers crowding its hoppers, but – as one of the founders of the party - yet also one of its more atypical members – I can tell you they won’t be too mean about it.

You wouldn’t even have to support a Green for president, if you didn’t feel like it. Anyway, the Greens have vastly overrated presidential campaigns at the expense of real grassroots organizing. Given America’s perverse election laws, the best any third party can expect at the top level is one shot. In the past century, only five third party presidential candidates have gotten two digit results; only two of those – LaFollette (17%) and Debs (11%) - were left of center. Third parties that worked from the bottom up – such as the Populists and Socialists – truly affected the politics of America.

(By the way, the Greens were not responsible for Gore’s loss in 2000, so don’t use that as an excuse. The polls show clearly that while Nader’s support stayed steady, Gore loss significant ground in the last two months of the campaign – a 12-14 point shift)

Imagine, for example, that those major labor unions now publically admitting their unhappiness with Obama actually did something about it instead of just grumping. Imagine that they made premeditated, large scale, television covered assaults on local voting registration centers as hundreds of unionists all became Greens at the same time.

What if flash mobs of blacks and latinos did the same thing? Environmentalists, activists for economic sanity and so forth?

What if the Green Party became what is so lacking on the left: a counterculture, a community, a home? Filled with varied views and solutions but all pointing their dreams in the same direction.

I’d even welcome gun owners who support the rest of the Bill of Rights and nuns who keep quiet when gays get married, but that’s just me.


Nowhere near as much as some may think.

After all. I’ve been on both sides of this. Back in the early 1990s I wrote:
||| I think the Green philosophy is the most important new ideology in half a century. I have no problem with their ten key values, although several of them seem a bit pompous and they'd be easier to remember if there were only three or four. I admire the Greens I know, I've contributed to the cause, I read their journals and I agree with many Green policies.

But despite all this, I have never gotten actively involved with the Green movement. I guess you could call me a couch Green. The problem is that when you come right down to it, I don't feel I'm good enough to be a Green. I doze when I read Green magazines, I can't remember what Green acronyms mean, I like Big Macs, and I drive my car too much. I'm like the guy who admitted to the New York Times that he didn't recycle cat food cans because he couldn't stand the smell as he washed them and I'm afraid that if I attended a Green meeting I would be found out.

Further, I have a suspicion that a lot of people in the Green movement were also in my Soc Sci 2 class, writing ten pages on the differences between Locke and Rousseau while I was struggling to fill one.

I was never quite sure whether they were a political movement or a church. Maybe they were part of what Fran Liebowitz calls the "religious left." Certainly there was an aura that to be "part" of the Green movement demanded not only acceptance of a catechism but a commitment that went far beyond that required by any political party I had previously encountered.||||
So what did I do?, A few months later, I joined them, while keeping my own sloppy, slobby values. I called myself the chair of the Big Mac Caucus of the Green Party. And yet they let me help start the national party. And no one’s been nasty to me since.

Besides, even if the Green platform is too long and the party has too many key values for my taste, there are 80 Green parties around the world that share four of these key values: grassroots democracy, social justice, ecological wisdom and non-violence. Add civil liberties and economic fairness and you’ve got a list almost anyone pissed off at the Democrats could go along with. And remember.

As for the Greens, if giving up the cultural comfort yet electoral impotence of a small, homogenous party seems dangerous, consider some historic models.

From its beginning the Socialist Party was the ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical. On the divisive issue of "reform vs. revolution," the Socialist Party from the beginning adopted a compromise formula, producing platforms calling for revolutionary change but also making "immediate demands" of a reformist nature. A perennially unresolved issue was whether revolutionary change could come about without violence; there were always pacifists and evolutionists in the Party as well as those opposed to both those views. The Socialist Party historically stressed cooperatives as much as labor unions, and included the concepts of revolution by education and of 'building the new society within the shell of the old.'"

By World War I it had elected 70 mayors, two members of Congress, and numerous state and local officials. Milwaukee alone had three Socialist mayors in the last century, one as late as the 1960s.

Some highly successful third parties never ran anyone for president (except in fusion with one of the major parties). The Liberal Party of New York remains the longest lived third party next to the Socialists. Founded in 1944 - in a break with the more radical American Labor Party - the Liberals benefited immensely from New York's fusion-friendly election laws, which allowed it to support Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and to claim credit for giving John Kennedy enough votes for his presidential victory. Other nominees of the party included Averill Harriman, Mario Cuomo, Jacob Javits, Robert Kennedy, Fiorello LaGuardia and John Lindsey. Swinging the gate of New York politics made it exceptionally important.

So there’s precedent for eclectic third parties with no standardized tests, parties with a remarkable ability to create strong, enthusiastic political forces of decency outside the conventional world of the corrupt.

Besides the Greens have long needed labor, ethnic groups, environmentalists, civil libertarians and everyone else who believes in democracy and sanity. And labor, ethnic groups, environmentalists, civil libertarians and everyone else who believes in democracy and sanity need the Green Party as well. They should come together soon, loudly - even dancing if they feel like it.

Besides, if you find it’s not working, you can always switch back just as easily as you came on board.

If you don’t like that idea, try something else. One thing’s for sure: logic, clictivism, solemn op eds, and grumping about Rick Perry aren’t enough.

And right now, the Green Party is just sitting there, waiting for someone to start the music.